by Neil Besner
Henry Kreisel opens his well-known essay "The Prairie: A State of Mind" with his memory of a letter in an Edmonton newspaper, from a man Kreisel imagined as "a giant..., a lord of the land [who] asserted what his eyes saw, what his heart felt, and what his mind perceived" ("The Prairie," 254) – that the earth was flat. Kreisel eventually transformed that giant’s unshakeable faith in his flat prairie world into the figure at the center of his finest story, "The Broken Globe." All of Kreisel’s stories document the breakup of worlds and worldviews; as a Jew fleeing Austria in the late 1930s, Kreisel lived his own way through one. His forced passage to the new world fissured his ties with the past, and, inevitably, with his first language – any writer’s first home. Deciding to write in English, Kreisel adopted Conrad as a "patron saint"; deciding to make a life in Canada, Kreisel looked to A.M. Klein, who showed him that he could lay claim to both halves of the immigrant’s world without sacrificing either.
In the title story, appearing here for the first time, Kreisel pays Klein a warm tribute. "The Almost Meeting" recreates Klein’s personality, transforms lines of his poetry, and evokes the enigmas of his reclusion in the figure of David Lasker, "a great poet as well as a great novelist, who had created an astonishing body of work, but had then suddenly fallen silent" (11). Lasker writes narrator Alexander Budak a congratulatory note on hid first novel, an autobiographical story of old world feuds splitting up a new world marriage. The son, Budak, searches all over North America for his father, but never quite meets him. Budak’s eagerly anticipated meetings with Lasker never materialize either, but Lasker’s closing note explains that even almost meetings are "something" : "It was impossible for me to see you...You wanted to ask me things. I have no answers. But you are in my heart. Let me be in your heart also. We had an almost meeting. Perhaps that is not much. And yet it is something. Remember me" (21). Kreisel has: his heartfelt evocation of Klein, like Livesay’s "For Abe Klein: Poet," is imaginative literary history, private and public.
"Homecoming," revised and greatly expanded in this version, is Kreisel’s bleakest evocation of the European postwar waste land. Mordecai Drimmer feels compelled to return to what remains of his home town in Poland; he is Kreisel’s most tormented figure, haunted by demons real and imagined, Jew-hating peasants and leering gargoyles that threaten him from church spires. Kreisel’s vision of the post-Holocaust landscape is surreal, vaporous with desolation; Drimmer’s agonized descent into the past is so powerfully imagined, the devastation so utter, that in contrast his final rebirth of hope seems a fragile scene, more wished for, more strained after than fully realized.
The remaining six stories are reprinted without change. "The Travelling Nude" is a comical, tongue-in-cheek sendup of an art instructor who loses his job teaching extension courses in outlaying prairie communities because he insists that a traveling nude would be just the ticket for his students. Mahler, the artist/teacher, opens his story with a portrait of his traveling nude, traveling nude – to pose for aspiring artists in Great Fish Lake, Three Bears Hills, Pollux, Castor... Kreisel gives Mahler’s tantalizing obsession whimsical, lighthearted treatment.
"Annerl" and "An Anonymous Letter" show Kreisel’s sensitivity to children’s rites of passage into adolescence. Annerl is an irreverent old peasant woman who sells roasted chestnuts on a Viennese street corner. Two schoolboys make her post a regular stop; she disappears for a few days and then returns, her drunken husband dead and buried. She continues to rail at him as she had when he was alive, but fondly remembers that he was a "right good’un" (86) in bed when he wasn't too drunk. Intrigued, the boys ask her to explain how men make love, but Annerl sends them off with free chestnuts and orders to pray for her Joseph’s soul, and they walk off towards several initiations at once. "An Anonymous Letter" follows a boy’s investigation into his father’s infidelity. David tracks his father to his rendezvous with his mistress and then confronts them in a restaurant. His innocence gives way to ambiguity in the space of a sentence: wondering if he is guilty of spying, and whether he should now tell his mother, he realizes that "Everything was too tangled up and nothing could ever be simple and straightforward again" (103).
In "Two Sisters in Geneva," Warren Douglas, a young Canadian student of history at Oxford, is privy to two sisters' monologues in a debate between Old and New World sensibilities. Mrs. Miller emigrated with her husband from England to Canada; after his death, she moves from their Peace River homestead to Edmonton. Now she’s come to Europe, bent on dragging her sister away from her home in Florence to the alleged comforts of the New World. Mrs. Miller is intolerant, bigoted, a blithe materialist. She can't pronounce her sister’s name; she’s shocked that Emily would "up and marry an Eyetalian" (126) and she’s scandalized at statues of nude figures in Florence. Emily Buonarroti, also widowed, tells Douglas a very different history: her husband was a teacher of Renaissance art, and "when you live in Firenze – in Florence – you have to learn something. Art, religion, history – it is all preserved around you" (129). Nowhere is Kreisel’s perception of the deep divisions between worldviews more artfully imagined. The story closes with the three boarding their train – Emilia longing for Florence, Mrs. Miller eager to show her the "wide-open prairie...and the Rocky Mountains" (131), and the student of history silent; the sisters' monologues have told separate stories all too well.
I've saved for last the two stories I admire most. "Chassidic Song" sings first with the voice of a Chassid, another of Kreisel’s giant, faithful figures. During a plane ride from Montreal to New York, the Chassid questions Arnold Weiss (a modern Jew, a Joyce scholar who has just presented a paper on Leopold Bloom) on the nature of his faith. Rhythmically reasoning, the Chassid answers himself with more questions, in dialectical couplets: in the mind’s eye, he sways back, forth, nodding, sighing, incantatory: "What do you mean – I?...Did I start this? What did I start? Did I talk to you first or did you talk to me first? Did I tell you where I was going? Or did you ask me? Who mentioned the Farbrengen? Did I or did you?....But even did you? Or perhaps it was Moses Drimmer speaking through you. Not the father. The grandfather" (30). The Chassid communicates a grandfather’s faith to his grandson, a song submerged for a generation. He leaves Weiss with an invocation: "Remember your grandfather. He knew that the tongue is the pen of the hart, but melody is the pen of the soul....He sang. Your grandfather. Oh yes. He sang, too" (35).
"The Broken Globe" is simply a classic. Nick Solchuk, a young geophysicist in London, is making a name for himself with his work on the earth’s curvature. He is estranged from his father: the two had quarreled years ago when Nick came home with a toy globe to show him that the earth moved, that it was round. The father had smashed the globe and beat Nick. As in other Kreisel stories, there is an intermediary in this one, a figure poised between two worlds, looking both ways; here, the narrator accepts a teaching post at the University of Alberta and promises Nick that he’ll drive out to his father’s farm to bring him greetings. The broken globe still sits in the old house; when he sees the narrator examining it, the father tells him the story behind it. Like Kreisel, the narrator is fascinated with the farmer’s brooding, massive figure; the closing image evokes his unbroken faith in all its stillness, size, and shadow: "I looked back at the house, and saw him still standing there, still looking at his beloved land, a lonely, towering figure framed against the darkening evening sky" (147).
In postwar Europe, on the prairie, in the family, at the writer’s desk, Kreisel’s immigrants inherit and inhabit a broken globe, living the double experience that Kreisel knows so intimately. By presenting all of his stories to us in one place, The Almost Meeting makes one of the richest aspects of Kreisel’s varied contribution to Canadian literature that much more coherent.
Note: All references are to The Almost Meeting and Other Stories, (1981).
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services